HELSINKI — Moscow’s hostility toward Finland’s future intentions on NATO membership has surfaced again in the wake of a visit by US official James Townsend, who accused Russia of meddling and criticized it for laying barriers in the way of any future Finnish application.
“I hope that one day the Finnish people will say yes, we want to join NATO, because NATO could use a great member like Finland. I think Finland would also profit from being part of NATO. The door is open to Finland,” said Townsend, deputy assistant defense secretary for European and NATO Policy, during a news conference here July 26.
Finland’s defense path, and the possibility that the country could one day join NATO, will be decided by “Finland and Finland alone,” based on the country’s long-term security needs, said Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö, who is also commander-in-chief of the Finnish Armed Forces.
Russia has been openly hostile to Finland and Sweden forming closer ties with NATO. The first significant shot across the Finland-NATO bow was fired by Russian defense chief Gen. Nikolai Makarov during an official visit to Helsinki in June 2012.
Makarov warned that a move toward NATO membership could have “serious political and trade consequences” for Finland.
“Military cooperation between Russia and NATO is progressing well and is beneficial to both parties. In contrast, cooperation between Finland and NATO threatens Russia’s security. Finland should not look to join NATO, rather it should preferably have closer military cooperation with Russia,” Makarov told Finnish officials.
Townsend described Russia’s “intimating” response to the idea that Finland might one day apply to join NATO as “disappointing,” more-so in light of the scaled-up exercises by Russian forces near its border.
“We live in a time when nations should feel free to join whatever institution they feel is important to them. Russia seems to like to exercise, not just to make sure their troops are trained but also to send a signal into the neighborhood that they are still here and still watching things across their border,” Townsend said. “Exercises are one way that they signal this. I think this is a shame. It is important for us to signal to Russia, or anyone else, that the United States has very close friends in this region.”
Since Makarov’s warning, Moscow’s tone has been replaced by a softer and more cooperative style of dialogue. This was evident in May, when Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu encouraged Finland to develop closer military collaboration and weapons trade with Russia.
“Potential exists for Russia and Finland to cooperate in the Arctic. We can help Finland modernize its armed forces with new systems like combat aircraft. There may be opportunities to purchase military equipment from Finland. Our military experts will hold a series of meetings on this issue in coming months,” said Shoigu, during an official visit to Helsinki.
The Russian proposal was broadly welcomed by the Finnish government. Finland Defense Ministry is establishing groups of experts to examine how Finland could maximize the value from a closer defense relationship with Russia, particularly in the area of using surplus production capacity within its indigenous defense industry to produce military materials under sub-contract agreements with industrial groups in Russia.
Finland believes its long-term defense and security will be developed through the European Union’s defense solutions and through defense partnerships, such as the evolving military alliance between the neighboring NATO and non-aligned Nordic states, Niinistö said.
However, the Finnish president said this does not mean that the door to NATO membership would be permanently closed.
“The global landscape is changing, and this impacts on Finland. Possible membership of NATO can be reconsidered in the light of the changing world order and cyber threats. I do not think that NATO’s door is closing on us in any way. We can apply for membership at any time,” Niinistö told a Finnish conference on foreign and security policy held in the south west town of Naantali on June 27.
Finland traditionally walks a tight diplomatic line between East and West when it comes to the politics of defense, so it is unlikely to favor NATO membership if it risks producing a trade and political backlash from Moscow, said Arvid Pedersen, a Copenhagen-based political analyst.
“Moscow’s military thinking is still based on the probability that hostile forces could use Finland’s 1,340-kilometer border with Russia as a corridor for attacks on its territories around St. Petersburg and the militarized northern areas,” Pedersen said. “Russia does not consider Finland to be a military threat, but having Finland as a possible NATO member and NATO’s ballistic-missile defense on its doorstep would quickly change the mood.”
The Iceland Fighter Meet 2014 NATO exercises, in which non-aligned Finland and Sweden will participate, best demonstrate how Finland’s defense politics might be shaped while maintaining good relations with both the alliance and Moscow, Pedersen said.
“Finland will contribute F/A-18 Hornets and helicopters to the air combat training exercises next year. However, the Finnish and Swedish aircraft will be under the operational control of Norway and will not come under NATO’s direct authority,” Pedersen said. “The probability is that Finland will stay outside NATO, at least in the short term. There is neither the will in the form of political consensus, nor public support, at this time for an early commitment.”
A NATO popularity survey conducted by pollster Taloustutkimus for public broadcaster YLE in June found that 52 percent of Finns opposed membership in the alliance while 29 percent supported and 19 percent were undecided.
“Public support for Finland joining NATO has remained fairly constant across different polls since the 1990s. The majority of Finns believe that Finland should make its own decision on NATO regardless of what neighboring countries like Sweden do. There was no great change in opinion when the Baltic countries joined NATO in 2004,” said Taloustutkimus’s research director Juho Rahkonen.
NATO’s relationship with Finland is conducted through the Partnership for Peace framework, which Finland joined in 1994.